By Jeff Balke
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Sean Carnahan, local promoter, producer and DJ, refuses to accept that his dance scene is dead.
It's a quarter past midnight at the grand opening of Spundae's new Saturday residency at M Bar. The dance floor is packed and everyone looks up toward the balcony, where headliner Ferry Corsten is on decks. In back, someone breaks out the glowsticks and goes to town -- twisting and high-stepping, swirling the neon-green flashes around his body like an airport runway worker gone mad. But he's not wearing baggy jeans, candy charms or a visor. This guy has on a blue dress shirt, and it's tucked into black slacks. It's dance music gone yuppie. And it's the reason why Carnahan, Houston's point man for Spundae, believes dance music can survive here in a high-profile, high-format way.
"Everybody in the club business in the city is saying this isn't going to work," he admits. "It can be done. People wanna go where there is a party."
Since its inception in San Francisco 11 years ago, Spundae has been the carpetbagger carnival many a dance fanatic hoped would come through town. The party organization holds residencies in cities across the United States, flying the top DJs in the world around their club circuit. They aim to transplant and replicate the Spundae experience found in California, pinning the biggest names in the industry to some of the hottest clubs in the United States and grooming local talent along the way by giving regional DJs a chance to open the sets. At the same time, Spundae tries to accommodate a wide range of DJ styles, because, as one representative puts it, "it's too small of a scene to just pick one." Consider it Darwinian fusion.
"It's trying to honestly tap into the -- we are hoping -- the growing dance scene in America," says Matthew Rodriguez, production manager for the national group. "We're just trying to make dance music more of a common thing than such a no-no that it was there for a little while."
In Houston, Spundae had an earlier incarnation, doing monthly shows at Hyperia for about a year prior to the club's closure in November 2002. In early 2003, corporate representatives for Spundae flew down to meet with Carnahan to take a look at local venues and attendance figures. On Halloween, Spundae reopened with a Paul Oakenfold show at Rich's.
It may seem surprising that Spundae would choose Houston over, say, Dallas, which several local DJs cited as having a superior scene in terms of popularity and infrastructure. According to Rodriguez, Houston was selected because of its size, its history as a once-thriving scene and the connections that Carnahan offers.
"We're not talking raver kids; these are college kids, young professionals or fashion people or whatever. They're starting to travel now, and they're starting to see something other than hip-hop out there that you can have fun to," says Carnahan, a Louisiana native who's lived in Houston since prep school. "It's nothing new. People have been doing this for a long time around here; it's just I'm doing it more on a club tip than a warehouse tip or any of the other stuff. I'm not by any means running a raver place -- not even close."
That much is evident at the Monday-night planning session that precedes the Corsten show. The 30 or so members of Team Spundae who gather are young and diverse -- both in the color of their skin and in their tastes in electronic dance music. They represent the grassroots foundation that Carnahan is banking on. They discuss bookings, design and promotion, and debate the best ways to get Houston to understand and appreciate electronica.
Carnahan runs the meeting with the get-out-the-vote mentality of a political strategist -- and with the diversity of subgenres represented, Spundae's "big tent" makes him the Karl Rove of the dance world. "The main thing that's working is what we're doing now, calling your friends, staying enthused yourself, just standing up for the music," he tells the team. They go over how they'll have to be sure to shield the DJ from gauche requests for mainstream pop. (Corsten, in from Holland, is not the DJ at your high school prom, Houston.) "Can you play some Nelly? Can you play some hip-hop?" team member John "Kung Fu Pimp" Tran mimics in a high voice.
They plan to sell T-shirts quoting a Ferry Corsten interview ("It's marinated in electro, baked in trance with a little bit of an edge, and served with a bump of techno!!") and asking the question, "What's your style of music?" Both Spundae and Carnahan, who notes the national investment on this project easily exceeds $100,000, are hoping the subgenre-speak doesn't scare off the uninitiated.
A large part of their challenge is making the underground accessible to the mainstream in the aftermath of a dance music downturn.
"It definitely was a pretty big fallout compared to the glory days of the late '90s. We just kept to the simplicity of our model," says Rodriguez. "I would say it's gotten a little better, but I wouldn't say we've turned the corner. It's hurt everywhere across the board."